Corruption with feng shui

By Hu Qingyun Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-9 0:58:01


A "feng shui ball" stands on top of a government building in Shuangfeng county, Hunan Province, in April, 2013. Luo Fanglai, the director of the Shuangfeng Land and Resources Bureau, was said to have spent 200,000 yuan ($32,683) on the ball to help secure success in officialdom. Photos: CFP

All the feng shui and all the lucky charms in the world couldn't save former railway minister Liu Zhijun from a death penalty with reprieve after being found guilty of taking bribes. It wasn't for a lack of trying though.

Liu had been photographed in the company of flamboyant, self-proclaimed feng shui and qigong guru Wang Lin, who is now on the run, believed to be in Hong Kong. Wang has told media that he and Liu were good friends, and that he had given Liu a lucky charm that would guarantee the safety of his position and bring him good luck.

Liu is far from the first Chinese official to seek supernatural aid. Some Chinese officials have been flocking toward superstition and religion in the belief that it will help their career, and in some cases are using public funds for this pursuit. This is despite the fact that the Communist Party of China (CPC) frowns upon superstition among its members.

A cavalcade of superstition

Yuan Jinzai (pseudonym), a self-proclaimed feng shui practitioner with a workshop in Shanghai, told the Global Times Tuesday that he used to receive "several" calls every month from clients who were officials, to discuss "measures" to change their fortunes.

Yuan said that normal suggestions included changing the location or decorations in the office, or adding some lucky items. "None of it is outrageous. We just try to correct some harmful energy by balancing the relationship between humans and the environment," Yuan said. He did not, however, discuss what the price or concrete results of these services are. When asked about the many outrageous cases involving corrupt officials, he went silent.

In one example of such a case, Hu Jianxue, the former Party secretary of Tai'an, Shandong Province, was told by a feng shui master that he would soon be appointed China's vice-premier but needed a "bridge" to fulfill this goal. Hu followed this advice and built a bridge by changing the route of a national highway to pass a reservoir. But he never became a vice-premier, partly because he was convicted of bribery and was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in 2012.

In another case, in a poor county in Gansu Province, officials spent 5 million yuan ($791,695) in 2010 to move a 300-ton rock to the county town square in a bid to block bad luck from entering the area and prevent good luck from escaping.

Ren Jianming, a professor of anti-graft studies from Tsinghua University, said that those traditional superstitions affected all of society and that officials are far from immune, but the key difference is that officials can have more impact on the public interest, and are in a position to abuse their power.

Faith in careers

Whilst China has had thousands of years of superstitious beliefs such as feng shui, the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 attempted to put a stop to these beliefs by replacing them with Marxist and atheist belief systems, albeit with Chinese characteristics.

Sima Nan, a renowned Maoist scholar, told the Global Times Tuesday that after the reform and opening-up policy was instituted in the late 1970s, these strictly secular beliefs were confronted with increased ideological diversity, which resulted in a crisis of faith and "confusion." He said that this meant people forgot the egalitarian tenets of communism and instead adopted utilitarian belief systems.

"This confusion made them weak when facing corruption or temptation or difficulties in their careers. As there was no one to seek advice from, they turned to practitioners of superstition," Sima said. 

A retired official, over 70 years of age, from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that officials nowadays are not as "pure" in their thought and have more temptation to make "mistakes" than before due to the development of the economy. He said there should to be some kind of strategy to prompt officials to consider these issues more.

Ren said that the solution to the issue was increased fairness and transparency in terms of selecting officials. "In China, there are lots of uncertain factors when it comes to being promoted within government, as the selection process is more likely to be influenced by kinds of 'talent scouts' rather than a fair and open system," he said, adding that this meant that officials always feel uncertain and confused about their duties as a civil servant. "One day, an official can be in the good graces of these 'scouts' thanks to good networking, but on the next they can be shut out without knowing the reason," Ren said. "Some turn to the supernatural to learn their fortune and seek out shortcuts for wealth and promotion."

Rooting out corruption

A 2007 report from the Chinese Academy of Governance showed that 52 percent of Chinese county-level civil servants admitted to believing in superstition and divination.

Cheng Ping, a professor at the academy who led the survey, said that the popularity of these superstitions is the result of pressure on officials to develop skills that would aid them in getting promoted, such as networking, strategy and tactics, rather than serving the people and working hard.

She said corrupt officials often turned out to be superstitious. 

Ren echoed Cheng, saying that superstitions can be the cause of corruption or power abuse, and that some officials even tried to use superstition as an excuse to accept bribery.

Sima said that with the recent anti-corruption campaign in China becoming more severe, many corrupt officials hope that feng shui can help them cover their tracks, but said that obviously it wouldn't help.

Experts also pointed out that corruption can be punished, but proving a link between superstition and corruption would be difficult, and punishing officials for believing in superstitions was a difficult prospect, despite the fact that most CPC members are atheists.

Ultimately, Sima and Ren put forward different solutions, with Sima suggesting further ideological education to guard against superstitious beliefs, while Ren proposed reform to the selection system for officials.

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